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Ask the Doctors: What can cause dry eye and what you can do about it

The condition occurs when someone lacks enough tears to lubricate and nourish the exposed surfaces of the eye.

Preservative-free lubricating eye drops used during the day can help alleviate symptoms of dry eye.
Preservative-free lubricating eye drops used during the day can help alleviate symptoms of dry eye.
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Dear Doctors: I have painful bouts of dry eye. My doctors have kept me bouncing between multiple medications for years with no explanation. What can we can do on our own that will help?

Answer: Dry eye occurs when someone lacks enough tears to lubricate and nourish the exposed surfaces of the eye.

It could be because not enough tears are produced or that the tears are evaporating too quickly because of environmental factors or due to the chemical composition of the tears.

Whatever the cause, the result is discomfort. It feels like a foreign body is scratching the eye. There also can be stinging, burning, blurred vision, red eyes and unusual sensitivity to light.

Older age and going through menopause are risk factors for the condition. Women are more prone to developing dry eye due to hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy, while using oral contraceptives and during and after menopause.

People who wear contact lenses are also at greater risk, as are those whose diets are low in vitamin A or omega-3 fatty acids.

Post-menopausal women with dry eye syndrome should consider the possibility of an autoimmune disorder known as Sjogren’s syndrome. The two most common symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome are dry eyes and a dry mouth. This can be confirmed with a specific blood test.

There are things that people with dry eye can do that can help, including using preservative-free lubricating drops during the day and more intensive lubricating ointments at night.

Skipping eye makeup can eliminate potential irritants, as can putting away the blow dryer. Wearing wraparound sunglasses outdoors creates a protective barrier. A warm, moist compress can help the glands in your eyelids that secrete part of your tears from becoming blocked.

And it sounds obvious, but remember to blink when engaged in eye-intensive tasks, like reading or using screens. That distributes moisture across the eyes.

We prescribe topical steroids for inflammation and topical antibiotics for bacterial eye infections.

To be prescribed combination steroid-antibiotic eyedrops without a diagnosis, as you were, is confusing. We urge you to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam so you and your doctor can understand exactly what is going on.

Dr. Eve Glazier and Dr. Elizabeth Ko are internists who teach at UCLA Health.